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‘Youth’ belongs to 82-year-old Sir Michael Caine

Michael Caine is the whole point of Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth.” His is not the only stellar name in the cast, but his role is the biggest and most important.

Harvey Keitel isn’t even close to Caine’s equal in on-screen wit and savvy. Jane Fonda is certainly Caine’s equal, but her part is a very small one – less than 10 minutes screen time – and it’s been more than a little overrated everywhere besides.

We’re used to Caine as a major figure in movies that are really what theatrical types call “two-handers,” i.e., movies that essentially boil down to what two major stars are doing no matter how many others are busily engaged around them.

The most famous two-hander in Caine’s screen life was the Joseph L. Mankiewicz adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s stage hit “Sleuth.” Caine’s co-star was Lord Laurence Olivier, than whom no thespian’s reputation was ever larger. You can’t say that Caine stole the film out from under Lord Larry’s nose, but when you see it, there’s no question whose pyrotechnic performance is brilliant and revelatory and whose is just cold, self-satisfied stagecraft.

Caine is the one you remember in “Sleuth,” but that’s the way Shaffer wrote his role, which means that, in a sense, what Olivier was doing was an act of enormous professional generosity to his younger colleague. Even so, they inhabited their roles differently in the movie – Olivier as an exercise in prancing, superficial wit, Caine as a devious and fiercely hidden force of nature. When you see the film, you can’t get away from one idea: Caine blew Lord Larry off the screen.

He didn’t do the same thing with Sean Connery in John Huston’s 1974 “The Man Who Would Be King” because, according to Huston, the two British movie giants were so pleased to be working together that they worked out some scenes privately almost as if they were clockwork vaudeville bits. And then they brought the results to Huston the next morning so that he could just shoot them and adjourn everyone for lunch.

Expect nothing remotely like that with Caine and Keitel here. When “Youth” is over, you can’t help feeling that, hard as he tried, Keitel just wasn’t in Caine’s league. It was a bit of a mistake, perhaps, to ask him to be.

They play two old friends at a very posh Swiss resort hotel – a place full of spa luxuriance and pamperings of a sort most of us don’t even bother to dream of because the chances of them happening to us are as likely as rocket rides to Mars.

Caine plays a conductor/composer named Fred Ballinger. Keitel plays his longtime friend, film director Mick Boyle. They are very different people, true, but their friendship has endured and surmounted their very different lives. They’re old enough now to joke about each other’s micturition habits, among other subjects familiar to males of advancing years.

Most important, of course, are their offspring. Rachel Weisz is excellent casting as Caine’s grown daughter.

Her father is being pursued by emissaries of the queen because, it seems, Prince Philip is a fan of Ballinger’s most popular composition, an early work which, at this stage of his life, excites him not at all. The Queen’s men want him to come back to England to conduct a royal command performance. He just wants to be peacefully retired amid Swiss luxe.

Meanwhile, his friend the film director is trying to get a film together with his aging star. Young writers mill about him pitching ideas at him and each other.

The movie’s first big set piece arrives with the director’s biggest star, played by Jane Fonda as part Grand Dame and part Madame Defarge. She buries her old director in tough-talking truth about his art and his career.

You have to give Fonda all the credit in the world for taking some utterly pitiless close-ups that reveal every day of her 78 years on her face. She is, for the precious few minutes of screen time that she has, the epitome of hard-nosed showbiz realism in late life. It is, indeed, a nice blast of reality amid all the luxe, but if you saw Fonda in her continuing role in Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom,” you saw her do something similar but with infinitely more panache, wit and depth.

It’s Caine’s film. He plays a diffident intellectual, a man increasingly contented off the podium and out of the limelight in every way. The greatness of his performance is that he’s such a good actor you see what lay behind his discontent and diffidence here – all the poetry and feeling of it. It is the central truth of the movie and Caine carries it off.

Unfortunately, writer/director Sorrentino is a slavish admirer of Federico Fellini, something that was self-evident in his Oscar-winning foreign film “The Great Beauty.” There is gorgeous photography through “Youth,” but so much seems self-consciously “Felliniesque” that the imbalance between Caine and Keitel seems even more pronounced.

What happens at the end becomes pure plot for its own sake – moving, to be sure, in context, but clockwork, no matter what the movie is trying to tell us about the higher nature of “youth” in human endeavor.

The movie succeeds, ultimately, as a Caine showpiece, but not as much else.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

YOUTH

3 stars

Starring: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Jane Fonda

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Running time: 124 minutes

Rating: R for graphic nudity, some sexuality and language.

The Lowdown: A retired 80-something composer/conductor and a film director explore their long friendship and their offspring’s lives at a posh Alpine resort hotel.